New curriculum products for schools

Here’s a roundup of some of the latest ed-tech curriculum products for schools.

An all-digital science textbook, a multiplayer online “social learning” math game, and software for honing students’ math and reading skills that comes bundled on low-cost mobile devices are among the latest curriculum software products available to schools this fall.

Here’s a roundup of some of the latest ed-tech curriculum products for schools.

STEM education

With science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education a top priority for the Obama administration and for schools, a number of companies have introduced or promoted new STEM-related products at recent ed-tech trade shows.

For instance, Aldebaran Robotics, a French company with U.S. offices in Boston, demonstrated what it says is the most widely used humanoid robot for academic purposes worldwide, called NAO. Teachers who have used NAO humanoid robots during their classes say the devices really motivate students, according to the company. The robots provide an introduction to computer programming and offer a hands-on way to teach about topics such as locomotion, voice recognition, and more.

NAO is equipped with a simple, visual programming tool that allows students to create and program different behaviors for the robot. Students can develop behaviors combining gesture, movement, sound, music, and speech. NAO can be used across many areas of the curriculum, Aldebaran says—allowing for fun, playful exercises that open up meaningful scientific discussions, including what principles allow the robot to recognize a face or what methods help it to locate and aim a soccer ball.

“One of the things that amazes me most is the draw that NAO has for students,” said Mike Beiter, chair of the computer systems department at Central Tech High School in Erie, Pa. “It draws women and minorities [who] have never shown interest in programming or robotics to the table.” He added: “The special education department has been amazed at the results we have achieved with students in a wide variety of areas.”

3D projection is another technology that has shown promise for STEM education, and Cyber Science 3D demonstrated its interactive 3D simulations, which deliver high-quality three-dimensional science models for teachers and students. The content includes interactive models for teaching about botany, chemistry, earth science, human anatomy, and zoology. Each simulation lets users explore, dissect, and manipulate the virtual models on a computer. All content is available in web-based 2D or stereographic 3D modes.

Two encyclopedia companies recently introduced new science-related learning content. Britannica Digital Learning, the educational arm of Encyclopedia Britannica, showcased “Britannica Pathways: Science,” a new web-based instructional program for grades 6-8. The program features interactive exercises designed to supplement core science textbooks. It includes 10 modules and aims to correct more than 100 major misconceptions in the science field, the company says. Students use an inquiry-based, hands-on approach so that they learn by doing, participating, discussing, and concluding. Each lesson uses questions to help start the conversation about what students are thinking and why.

And World Book highlighted Science Power, its supplemental science learning site for upper elementary-age children. The site is correlated with popular science textbooks as well as state standards, and it includes differentiated content to help struggling readers master the material. Units include The Water Cycle, Forces & Energy, Living Things, and more. With interactive multimedia, teacher guides, extension activities, critical thinking questions, and a test for each lesson, Science Power is suitable for use in the classroom, the school library, or the public library, World Book says.

While those two products are supplemental resources, a producer of digital media has created an all-digital “textbook” intended to serve as a core instructional resource in science.

Discovery Education, the educational arm of the Discovery Channel, is probably best known for its Discovery streaming online video-on-demand service—but at ISTE and other recent ed-tech conferences the company has promoted its new TechBook, an all-digital science textbook for grades K-8.

Discovery’s TechBook is much more than a PDF version of a standard textbook, the company says: It presents information in several different formats, including text and video. An interactive glossary defines science terms in multiple formats, and it can read words aloud to struggling readers. All content follows the “5E” model of instruction: engage, explore, explain, elaborate, evaluate. Built-in assessments are included, along with prescriptions for tutorials based on what topics a student has missed.

About 80,000 students will use Discovery’s TechBook this fall as their primary science “textbook,” said a company representative—including students in Florida’s Collier County. Florida is one of four states—the others are Indiana, Louisiana, and Oregon—that have adopted the TechBook as a core curriculum resource in elementary or middle school.

The content is timelier than that of a traditional textbook, Discovery says—the version that will be used by schools this fall already contains information about the tornado that devastated the town of Joplin, Mo.—and it’s cost-effective, too: about $40 per student in Florida, compared with about $70 per edition for a printed textbook. What’s more, teachers who already use Discovery streaming can access this resource and the TechBook through a single sign-on, the company says.

For math instruction, Conceptua Math has introduced Conceptua Fractions, a free supplemental online curriculum that uses simple models to help students move through fractions lessons. The curriculum is sequenced into nine units and 500 lessons and features formative assessment and progress monitoring. It also incorporates Universal Design principles to help meet the different learning needs of students.

Texas Instruments, meanwhile, has promoted the large gains that schools and districts have realized with the company’s MathForward program, which is a systemic intervention for improving secondary math teaching and learning. North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools showed middle school proficiency improvements of up to 31 percent on state tests by using this method, TI says.

Language arts and social studies

Fresh from its acquisition earlier this year of online adaptive software company Headsprout, DYMO/Mimio previewed a new instructional resource called MimioLearn, for teaching reading comprehension. Slated for release this fall, the product consists of lessons from Headsprout adapted for use with an interactive whiteboard.

Middlebury Interactive Languages, a joint venture between online-learning company K12 Inc. and Middlebury College, demonstrated its interactive online courses in French and Spanish, which use immersion, engagement, and inspiration to help students learn a new language. The immersion method challenges students to learn a new language as if they were studying abroad. Designed by teams of language education experts, the courses include innovative virtual-world games and 60 hours of video shot on location in foreign countries. Students get to use the language in context with their peers.

TCI (Teachers’ Curriculum Institute), a California-based publishing company created “by teachers, for teachers,” has unveiled a new online social studies curriculum that combines best practices in teaching with interactive learning and rich content. Teachers use an interactive whiteboard or projector to share a large, rich image of a historical event or person. Interactive activities proceed from there, with students participating in group discussions, watching videos, and manipulating images on the board. Students might conduct press conferences as historical figures, TCI says, or take a walking tour of Florence to uncover details about the Renaissance.

Multidisciplinary resources

Traditionally, when hardware and software providers have teamed up to offer bundled services, it has been the hardware provider who has sold the combined solution to schools. But Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s SkillsTutor has announced a partnership with Intel Corp. and Equus Computer that flips this traditional model on its head.

Now, school leaders who are interested in buying SkillsTutor’s math and reading fluency software, but who are concerned that they don’t have the ed-tech infrastructure necessary to deliver the software to every student effectively, can buy the software as part of a cost-effective, integrated solution that includes Intel Classmate mobile computers and IT support from Equus.

“To engage the 21st-century learner, …educators must find ways to transform traditional learning into an anytime, anywhere ecosystem,” said SkillsTutor President Adam Hall. “By providing students with both … software and devices, we can make sure they are able to take advantage of all that [SkillsTutor] has to offer, in an innovative way that meets them where they already are.”

Beginning this school year, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt also will let educators virtually sample thousands of its K–12 curriculum offerings—giving teachers and curriculum directors a faster an easier way to evaluate the company’s products, the company said.

In another new deal with important implications for schools, ePals and the Smithsonian Institution have announced a partnership to deliver Smithsonian resources and expertise in science, art, history, and culture across the entire ePals social learning platform. Through this partnership, Smithsonian content will be threaded throughout ePals’ LearningSpace and SchoolMail 365 products and will be accessible to all ePals users in the ePals Global Community, the company says.

ePals LearningSpace users can explore and collaborate on Smithsonian projects and exhibits using a variety of safe, policy-managed social media and Web 2.0 tools, with the ability to share, store, and manage projects and files on ePals’ cloud-based platform for anytime, anywhere access, ePals says. SchoolMail users can get weekly eMail messages delivering interactive Smithsonian reading and writing activities targeted by topic and grade level.

All “Smithsonian on ePals” subjects include lesson plans for teachers, step-by-step collaborative projects for classrooms, and media galleries where students and teachers can publish and share completed work. ePals classrooms also can connect with Smithsonian experts and curators online for lessons, discussion, and enrichment—and the two organizations say they’ll work together to produce additional classroom projects and activities.

PBS Kids previewed new curriculum resources that will launch in September, including online games, interactive whiteboard activities, mobile apps, augmented reality applications, and play-along videos from shows such as Curious George, Super Why!, Sid the Science Kid, and Dinosaur Train. The resources are intended to help preschool and elementary school teachers take advantage of the popularity of these television shows with lessons both inside and outside of the classroom.

Pearson has announced that its digital curriculum program for K-8 math and reading, SuccessMaker, will be available online starting this fall. Now, school districts will be able to implement SuccessMaker over the internet, with Pearson hosting the digital content and student data and delivering the information online to schools.

Online deployment is a cost-effective option for schools, Pearson says, because it enables the scaling up of implementation more easily; simplifies setup; and reduces the headaches of management and backup. Plus, online delivery of SuccessMaker can help schools extend the learning day beyond the classroom walls. The latest version of SuccessMaker also includes a new Spanish language glossary to improve support for English language learners, as well as content aligned with the Common Core standards.

CompassLearning has announced innovations in its CompassLearning Odyssey 2011 curriculum software, including a new middle school science offering, enhancements to its math and English/language arts content—including hundreds of new interactive activities that are aligned with the Common Core standards—and an upgraded user interface.

CompassLearning Odyssey 2011 also has added more breadth and depth to its high school social studies lessons by including historical overview activities that analyze and critique major historical eras, enduring themes, turning points, events, and people in the history of the United States, the rise of nation states, and more. The enhancements also bring the software up to date, with information as current as the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the death of Osama Bin Laden, and the recent tornadoes in Joplin, Mo. As with the rest of the company’s software, formative assessments are included for each individual activity.

Game-based learning

CompassLearning’s new middle school science content consists of four courses designed with a game-like framework. It uses a combination of animated avatars and live characters to guide students through a mastery of concepts; students are challenged to “save the world” as they complete various challenges and activities.

This game-based approach is one of many unveiled in recent months; another is Qtopia, an online service from Qwizdom Inc. Qtopia offers a variety of interactive games and challenges that allow students to practice their skills in a fun online environment. Students can proceed at their own pace through lessons and activities that consist of questions, answers, and explanations, and they can customize their experience by creating their own avatars.

The basic service is free, but an enhanced version (available for an annual subscription) provides access to additional games after school hours, as well as district-wide tracking and reporting features.

Another game-based approach is taken by Sokikom, which has unveiled a multiplayer online “social learning” math game. The online environment is designed to help students in grades 1-6 build math skills. The game features animated characters, and students play games that address real-world problems as they move through different units within the game.

Video streaming

Discovery Education has teamed up with digital curriculum company Shmoop to include Shmoop’s Literature Guides and Biographies in its Discovery Education streaming PLUS program, which includes more than 150,000 video clips and digital learning objects.

Written by Ph.D. students from Stanford, Harvard, UC Berkley, and other top universities, Shmoop’s content is known for its sense of humor and references to pop culture. For example, Shmoop introduces students to The Great Gatsby by comparing the novel to the television shows “Real Housewives” and “The Sopranos.”

“Shmoop content is wonderfully engaging and fun for today’s students,” said Kelli Campbell, senior vice president of Discovery Education. “Shmoop Learning Guides are a valuable addition to the curricular content in Discovery Education streaming PLUS. Shmoop’s use of current events and pop culture helps students see how these topics are applicable today.”

Learn360, a top competitor to Discovery Education in the video streaming space, has touted its own service as a more cost-effective option for schools. “We’re becoming an alternative to the other services because of our price point,” said the company’s Michael Ensign, who added that Polk County, Fla., expects to save between $30,000 and $40,000 by switching to Learn360’s video service.

Although much smaller than Discovery’s video collection, Learn360’s library of 9,300 educational videos includes content from Discovery Channel competitors such as The History Channel, National Geographic Channel, and A&E, as well as the Public Broadcasting Service. Ensign said his company has begun selling customized, scaled-down versions of its service to school districts that already use Discovery Education streaming to “fill in the gaps” that might exist in their video coverage. Learn360 also recently announced a new “Plug and Play” media server option, which allows customers to host the video content locally instead of streaming it over the internet.

Another video streaming company, New Dimension Media, recently added more than 500 new titles to its CCC! Video on Demand product. The additions include new content in the company’s Talking Maps series of social studies videos for students in grades 5-12, bringing the people, places, and events of the Civil War into geographical context; Geometry Applications, a new series that brings real-world applications of geometric concepts alive for high school students using computer animation; and 20 episodes of the PBS television show Between the Lions, designed to foster the literacy skills of elementary-age students. The new content brings the total number of CCC video titles to more than 4,000, the company said.

Inventive Technology doesn’t provide video content, but it does supply a way for schools to manage and stream their own content. The company’s MediaCAST platform is an open and interoperable digital content management and video streaming solution that enables schools to create, manage, and deliver live and on-demand multimedia anytime, anywhere. Users can access their school’s digital repository from any device with internet connectivity, the company says—including computers, display screens, projectors, mobile devices, and iPads.

Information literacy

EasyBib, which is an automatic bibliography maker that helps students easily compile a “works cited” list for their papers, has enhanced its service to link directly with papers created in Google Docs, the company says.

More and more schools have been encouraging their students to use Google Docs for their research papers and writing assignments, because it’s accessible from any computer or smart phone and allows different students to edit and collaborate on the same document in real time. Now, those students can easily manage and share their paper and bibliography from either website, EasyBib says.

“Previously, we made it possible to export a fully formatted bibliography to Google documents, and … as part of the Google apps marketplace, the EasyBib app has now been implemented by hundreds of schools,” said EasyBib co-founder Darshan Somashekar. “This newest [allows] users to access their completed bibliographies and papers from either website.”

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